By Bob Nardini, Vice President Library Services, Books
“Books are for use.” To most people, this sounds like nonsense: “What do you mean? Some people read them. What else would you do with books?”
But, to anyone who has spent time for the past half-century or so in a library school program – no matter what school they attended or what their program was called, no matter what they studied, no matter if on campus or online, no matter what they are doing now – they’d recognize the “first law of library science.”
And any librarian, especially if their career pre-dates the ebook, knows lots of things you can do with books that have nothing to do with reading. You can catalog them, stamp and label them, list them, shelve them, move them, bind them, repair them, preserve them, store them, and above all, especially at big academic libraries reporting to the Association of Research Libraries in the print era, you could count them.
You could also check them out and then back in again, if a book actually did turn out to be “for use.” But that was often beside the point, because so many academic library collections, in that age, were built for the ages.
S.R. Ranganathan was a librarian from the University of Madras who in 1931 published his Five Laws of Library Science, a staple of library curriculum ever since. On his first page, Ranganathan, who had studied in England, referred to another era when library collections were built for the ages, the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when books might be chained to their shelves. “A modern librarian,” he wrote, “will not worry about the books leaving the library. Instead, it will be the ‘stay-at-home’ volumes that perplex and depress him.”
In fact, for some 30 years stay-at-home volumes did not depress or perplex everyone. The well-known “Kent study” at the University of Pittsburgh, which showed in 1979 that some 40 percent of the books there had never circulated, was honored mostly in the breach by librarians focused on collection-building, especially at those libraries hoping to move up the ARL rankings.
Then everything changed. The economics of academic libraries changed after the 2008 financial collapse. Technology changed, as online journals subverted the primacy of print and ebooks began their rise as an alternative format. Above all, the culture of academic libraries changed. The librarian’s job was to serve users, not serve their collections. Spaces were repurposed, organizations rearranged, jobs rewritten, careers redirected. And, collections re-evaluated. If the library was for users, then, as Ranganathan had said, books were for use.
Usage studies were hard to do in Allen Kent’s time. Kent, a professor at Pittsburgh’s library school, listed seven co-authors and three research assistants on the Contributors page of the book his group produced. His Acknowledgments page credited seven graduate students and assorted others. Kent himself was the Principal Investigator. Through a series of “sorts and merges” of data extracted or recorded from book cards, patron ID cards, and the newly automated circulation system, Kent’s group, overcoming their “quarrels about baseline data,” created a file of the library’s collection usage between 1969 and 1975. “A variable-length record, fixed-block-size ASCII file residing on two standard reels of magnetic tape labelled and recorded at 1600 bpi,” said Kent, “forms the basis for much of the work.”
Usage studies are easier now, of course. Digital resources invited them. Journals led the way. Not only were journals expensive, consuming more of the budget every year, they had to be renewed. So, whether you were a librarian who’d decided to renew or to cancel, you had a decision to justify.
Online platforms provided the tools, and librarians put those tools to work. Some made usage studies the focus of their careers. As ebooks became more common, as ILS systems improved accessibility of circulation data and, especially, after the financial crash of 2007-2008, librarians already seasoned by systematic study of online journals and databases began to look at books. Search Google Scholar for “book usage” and the year 2000, and you will find 25 citations. Try 2016, and you’ll see 205. Allen Kent is at last getting his due as well, with citations of his book occurring at over double the annual rate, from 2010-2015, as against 2000-2007.
“Let us examine,” Kent had written in his Preface, “why librarians have such a difficult time in guessing what future requirements will be.” The many librarians joining Allen Kent in studying book usage have framed their studies differently, emphasizing subject, or format, or publisher, or acquisition method, or acquisition date, or publication date.
Some librarians cite usage results similar or at times worse than Kent’s 40 percent of untouched books, and declare that traditional ways to select books no longer work and maybe never did. Others take the long view, as librarians at research institutions must, arguing that circulation or usage rates are not that important. And still others, citing lower rates of non-use than Kent’s, present 34 percent, or 31 percent, or 26 percent as refutation of Allen Kent or anyone else who accepts his 40 percent as an indictment of academic library book selection.
Interpretations vary, but we do know one thing: Books may be for use, but nobody’s enforcing Ranganathan’s first law when a librarian buys one. Even a best-case finding, such as 26 percent unused, means that, depending on its size, a library has bought hundreds or even thousands of unused volumes, spending about a quarter of the books line in the year’s budget without much to show for it. Is that a bad outcome? Or is it all a library can hope for?
ProQuest will leave interpretation to others. We recognize, though, that “Return-on-Investment” is now a prevailing campus concern, that counter-claims have mounted on the physical space devoted to print book collections, and that much less time is available for librarian book selection than in the past. It can’t be easy to sit down at budget time with funding officers at a small or medium-sized or even a large academic library and explain that 26 percent, let alone, according to OCLC data for 212 U.S. academic libraries, Kent-like rates averaging 42 percent of non-use.
Those appointments can be less fearful with book acquisition models pioneered, developed, improved, and supported by ProQuest. These include Short-term Loan, Extended Access, and Access-to-Own, all forms of Demand-driven Acquisition, whereby library money is guaranteed to be spent on books that are used. To say that “books are for use” may seem obvious, but our belief in the importance of book usage differentiates ProQuest from competitors who have defined their mission and hope to shape the market around library-driven selection and the sale of books whether or not they will be used.
For many good reasons, libraries often buy books and not think about immediate use. We understand this, and ProQuest is as happy as any other company to sell books no matter a library’s purpose in buying them. We don’t, on the other hand, believe that banking on the primacy of library-driven selection is the best long-term idea for anyone involved with publishing, buying, or selling academic books. We’d prefer to continue working with publishers and librarians to refine complementary Demand-driven Acquisition methods – to help librarians show that books really are for use.